As the memories and tributes to Steve Jobs continue to pour in, many have noted that the company he co-founded has always been committed to "the education market." Indeed any history of the last 35 or so years of education technology would be incomplete without a look at Apple's and Jobs' contributions. From the Macintosh to the NeXT computer to the iBook and beyond, many of the products that Apple and Jobs have built were meant to be precisely the types of the powerful computing devices that schools and universities (and students and teachers) would want to procure.

And procure they did. Long before the advent of the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" commercials, many schools have stood firmly on the Apple side of the personal computing divide. I know of few harder-core Apple fans than teachers. There are a lot of reasons why this might be -- Macs' simplicity, the ease with which they network, their emphasis on creativity and not just "productivity," and so on.

But I want to interrogate some of the praise I've heard about Apple and education technology -- not to disparage Steve Jobs' contributions, but rather, to raise some questions about what we mean by success in ed-tech, how and when Apple's success in education has occurred, what it's meant in terms of educational software, as well as in terms of putting computers in the classrooms, and in getting computers into homes (and pockets).

As I watched the memorial tweets and blog posts roll by since Steve Jobs' passing, I couldn't help but notice that many of us shared specifically childhood memories about Apple computers. (I won't psychoanalyze, but I do wonder if this explains in part the deep sadness many of us feel about Jobs' death). One of the things that struck me was the repeated recollection about that one Apple computer that sat in the back of the classroom, that perhaps -- if you behaved -- you could play Oregon Trail on during recess.

True, that's a memory from a particular era. There are now computer "labs" at schools -- classrooms with rows and rows of desktop computers. There are laptop carts. (But playtime with games like Oregon Trail is still offered as a reward). For its part, Apple has worked hard to change that student-to-computer ratio. After all, Apple is in the business of selling computers. It has offered schools and students deep discounts for its hardware and software. It pioneered and pushed some of the software that has been embraced in the classroom -- software for creating Web pages, projects, podcasts, videos, music. It built devices that students wanted to own themselves -- and (this is sheer marketing genius) it offered students free iPods as an added incentive to choose to buy Macs and not Windows machines.

Apple's mission statement once listed students and educators (along with "creative professionals") as the individuals for which it designed its Macs. But at some point in Apple's history, that focus changed. Or at least the mission statement is different now (there's no mention of education). No doubt, its customer base has broadened. It is no longer solely interested in building educational-oriented computers, selling schools computers, or even selling students computers. Apple set its sights on the entire consumer electronics industry, up-ended it with the release of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, and -- if you can judge the company today based on market valuation and sales of devices and profits -- Apple won.

But when it comes to ed-tech -- Apples and otherwise -- have schools won? Have teachers? Have students?

One of the problems that Apple faced for a long time in both the education and consumer markets was that there just wasn't the right software. You can build a powerful personal computer -- and you can build that computer with the hopes that smart folks (teachers and students) could use them to unleash their creativity and to further their learning. That sounds great in theory, but if there isn't something you can do with that powerful computer, so what? You can get schools to spend lavish amounts of money on machines, networking, licenses and so on, but to what end?

I am not making the argument here that Matt Richtel does in his recent piece in The New York Times, pointing to the failure of test scores to rise as some damning piece of evidence that computers in the classroom (Apples or otherwise) are a waste of money. Test scores aren't the right measurement for much, in my opinion. I am, however, slightly more sympathetic to Richtel's article in today's NYT about the empty promises of a lot of educational software. "Revolutionary Math Curricula. Revolutionary Results." My ass.

I think it's worth pointing out here that the person in both of Richtel's articles who offers the best counter-narrative to his claims about the failure of ed-tech to elevate standardized test scores is Karen Cator, now the director of the Office of Educational Technology and formerly an executive within Apple's Education Division.

Apple's efforts in the education space have long been fairly overt, and not just in hardware sales. Apple's Distinguished Educator program was an early example of tech companies identifying, training, and "branding" teacher-evangelists. Steve Jobs would often talk about the company operating at "the intersection of technology and the liberal arts." Apple even acquired the information system PowerSchool in 2001, the same year Steve Jobs keynoted the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC, now ISTE) in Chicago. Just five years later, (in a decision that I think is worth exploring in more detail some other time -- did I mention I'm weighing writing a book on ed-tech failures?), Apple sold its SIS business to Pearson, now the largest education technology company in the world.

I was at NECC 2001 when Steve Jobs gave a keynote there. At the time, I worked for the University of Oregon Conference Services; we ran the registration and exhibits for the event. I didn't hear his speech, but found an old ZDNet article about it. It's an interesting read. "Rather than bringing students to the computer, the new way is bringing computers to the students," (emphasis mine) Jobs said to the audience at NECC. "We're seeing this start to happen." According to research firm IDC, the ZDNet continues, "the use of notebook computers in the education market will eventually surpass that of desktop systems by more than a factor of three. Jobs asserted that Apple is the market leader in education notebook sales, with 26 percent of the market share, and number one in education wireless technology, thanks to its AirPort technology."

That does seem like a pretty prescient statement when we look at what Jobs calls the "post-PC era" for schools. And it's a statement that points to Apple's longstanding support for Internet-capable, mobile computing devices.

To put things in context, however, that same year, in 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, a device that I'd argue changed the music industry and changed Apple's focus as well. 2001 was six years before the release of the iPhone, nine years before the release of the iPad, and seventeen years after the release of the Macintosh. 2001 was also the year that the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. And that piece of legislation, no doubt, changed the role of ed-tech and the focus of ed-tech profoundly. That piece of legislation made the sorts of devices that Jobs wanted -- powerful and empowering and creative and beautiful (those are fanboy adjectives, I know, but whatever) -- far less important.

The technology we put in the classroom, post-2001, was for productivity. It was for testing.

Where was Apple then?

Much of the education technology software that's been created and placed into classrooms over the last thirty-some-odd years has been focused on administration. It's been focused on efficiencies. It's not exploratory or enabling. It's not been about open-ended learning, per se. It's been about centralized control.

Until, some will argue, the resurgence of Apple and the iPhone and iPad.

It's easy now to look back on Steve Jobs and Apple computers and call him visionary. I won't disagree with that moniker. It's easy to look at schools' iPad adoption, for example, and say that Apple represents the success, not the failure, of education technology. Indeed, as now CEO Tim Cook said onstage this week, every state in the country has some sort of one-to-one program that uses the iPad. I remember, not that long ago, having to explain to people why a one-to-one computing program was an important concept. Folks look at the iPad and in a lot of cases, they "get it." They understand the power and the promise of one personal and mobile computer in the hands of each student.

Of course, only part of the popularity of the iPad and iPhone and iPod Touches in schools stem from the hardware itself. It's the vibrant app ecosystem that Apple has enabled too. No longer do some of the old giants in educational technology have full control the educational software that's licensed to schools. No longer do they dictate which applications appear on schools' and students' devices. There's the App Store. There's an explosion of third-party developers making all sorts of wonderful products, many of which weren't explicitly "educational" but that have become just the thing teachers and students have been waiting for (Evernote may be the best example of this.)

But just as we have gained some flexibility through the ability to unseat some of the old players in educational software, we might have lost some by being so enamored with Apple and being so beholden to Apple's closed app ecosystem.

More disturbing: no longer are the Apple devices themselves quite as wonderfully hack-able as the early computers. You can't crack open your iPhone like you could your Apple IIe. "It just works," Jobs would often say, obscuring the programming and the machinery behind the scenes. "Just working" is a good thing if you want a solid, reliable device, I suppose. But "it just works" is a lousy answer to give an inquisitive mind when they ask "why?" "How?"

Education technology in the hands of Apple and Steve Jobs has been a mixed bag. We shouldn't be so dazzled by his magic that we forget to ask the hard questions about what's worked and what's failed and why. Remember: at some point, Apple decided to eschew the education market and build consumer electronics devices. It was a brilliant move, for innovation and for the company's bottom line. What do we want to make of that?

And now, in ways that I think have yet to fully play out, we're going to see what will happen when these (expensive) consumer electronic devices (re)enter the classroom. After all, an Apple device is a personal computing device, right when some of the most powerful forces in education policy are demanding more and more standardization.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives